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To Be, Or Not to Be: On Whether Animals Can Commit Suicide

Can animals reflect on, and reject, their conditions of existence?
can animals commit suicide iaitv philosophy
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The philosopher Owen Flanagan has pointed out that when Hamlet poses the question that has become the single most powerful query of all English literature, “he is, of course, contemplating suicide.” For reasons too complex to enumerate, when modern-day researchers think of a suicidal agent, they imagine a Hamletian character who struggles with the question of whether it is best to be or not to be; and when they are called upon to define ‘suicide’ they often define it, perhaps inspired by Hamlet, in terms of a series of mental states—an inner mental monologue, really—that somehow express or represent the subject’s conscious intent to die. According to this contemporary understanding, people who commit suicide are all those who, like Hamlet, contemplate the meaning of the good life, consider their future prospects, realize that their current life is not worth living, and then consciously choose not to be—Hamlet’s unchosen path.

This intentional conception of suicide seems reasonable enough. It fits with our common folk intuitions about what suicide is and what it looks like. Yet, from a philosophical standpoint, it may be more problematic than we realize.

Consider, for instance, that a good number of suicides—including impulsive suicides, youth suicides, altruistic suicides, and the suicides of people with severe mental health problems—do not seem to involve a conscious intent to die. Yet, they are obviously suicides. How can this be?

The answer is that suicide and intentionality need no go hand in hand. The intent to die may play a role in a lot, maybe even 99%, of suicides, but it is not a necessary condition for suicide. There are cases of suicide in which the relevant intention is nowhere to be found. As early as 1897, Émile Durkheim, the father of suicidology, recognized that there is a gap between suicide and intentionality and refused to ground his theory of suicide on the concept of intent. In his famous book, Le Suicide, he illustrated this gap with the examples of the soldier who sacrifices themselves by running into enemy territory to save their regiment and of the mother who jumps in front a moving truck to save her child. These figures, Durkheim says, are not motivated by a conscious wish to die. They don’t intend to die. Nevertheless, most of us would characterize their deaths as suicides.

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"The idea of a dog, cat, or horse sitting on a chair, having an existential crisis about whether to be or not to be is, for many, absurd—the stuff of comedy, parody, or science fiction. But not all suicides are the same and not all suicidal beings need to look like some version of Hamlet."

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Aside from the fact that it makes us ignore the fact that not all suicides involve a conscious intent to die, another problem with viewing suicide through a Hamletian framework is that the latter quickly—indeed too quickly—leads to the conclusion that only humans are capable of suicide. The idea of a dog, cat, or horse sitting on a chair, having an existential crisis about whether to be or not to be is, for many, absurd—the stuff of comedy, parody, or science fiction. But not all suicides are the same and not all suicidal beings need to look like some version of Hamlet.  The idea that nonhuman animals may be capable of suicidal ideation, as I argue in an article recently published in Animal Sentience, is not as absurd as most people might think.

In that article, entitled “Can Nonhuman Animals Commit Suicide?,” I argue there are good reasons to stop viewing suicide as a high-end cognitive achievement that belongs exclusively to our species and view it as a continuum that cuts across vast segments of the animal kingdom. Suicide, I contend, is not solely human. The problem is, in a sense, that we use Hamlet as a model of suicidality, which gives us a distorted image of what suicide is—both for human and nonhuman animals.

I begin building the case for animal suicide by common definitions of suicide that seek to exclude nonhuman animals by defining suicide in terms of some necessary condition that presumably only humans possess, such as subjectivity, free will, and awareness of death. Many researchers argue, for instance, that only individuals with a self-concept (a sense of being an ‘I’) are capable of suicide. There is ample scientific evidence, however, that a vast number of animals have a self-concept. They recognize themselves in a mirror, distinguish between self and other, and think about their behaviour in relation to the actions of others.

Others point to free will and hold that this is something only human beings possess. Many contemporary neuroscientists, however, argue that human free will is an illusion and that our actions are as ‘necessitated’ as those of animals. On this view, animals may not have free will, but neither do we. Conversely, if we do have free will by virtue of the fact that we can act voluntarily, there is no reason to think the same is not true of other animals. Nonhuman animals have preferences and make voluntary choices about whether, when, and how to pursue those preferences. On this view, if I have free will, then so does my cat.

Philosophers, like Hamlet, are often attracted to death, and some of them believe that suicide requires a conception of mortality, which only humans have. But the science, again, conflicts with our ready-made beliefs. Ethological research suggests there is more continuity across species when it comes to awareness of death than we tend to believe. Burial rituals have been observed in various animal species, including crows, magpies, captive gorillas, red foxes, elephants, and dolphins. Furthermore, many animals — including pets like cats and dogs and farm animals like horses, rabbits, and birds — experience feelings of bereavement, melancholia, and grief when relatives or companions die, which may mean survivors understand the difference between life and death.

Animals may not sit around like Hamlet wondering about existence, but they have a concept of death and, according to some research, are capable of differentiating between lethal and non-lethal environments.  

This means that the three major arguments in favour of a purely anthropocentric conception of suicide—that only humans have a self-concept, free will, or awareness of death—are philosophically unsustainable. Depending on how one construes them, they invariably either include cases of nonhuman animals that they do not want to include or exclude putative cases of human suicide that they do not want to exclude (such as the suicides of children, people with cognitive disabilities, and people struggling with addiction and mental health problems).

But so far the argument has been purely negative. Are there positive reasons to think nonhuman animals could engage in suicide? I believe so.

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"Once we should recognize that suicidal behaviours exist on a continuum, the idea of nonhuman suicide starts looking less far-fetched than before."

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One of the most persuasive arguments comes from well-documented cognitive and behavioural parallels between human and nonhuman animals that are suicide-relevant. For instance, animals experience many of the negative emotions and psychopathologies that are recognized as progenitors of suicide in human beings, such as depression, PTSD, anhedonia, helplessness, and chronic anxiety. They also display self-injurious behaviours from self-mutilation to self-cannibalism that would be automatically deemed ‘suicidal’ if performed by a human being. These behaviours are quite common when animals live in isolation from others in artificial and ethologically-impoverished environments, such as laboratories, zoos, and aquariums. Furthermore, there is vast evidence from animal-based laboratory research demonstrating that these parallels are not only cognitive and behavioural but also biochemical.

Our best research practices, then, commit us to the view that nonhuman animals (i) experience the emotional and psychological conditions that, in human beings, cause suicide; (ii) display behaviors that, in human beings, are exemplary of suicide; and (iii) undergo the same biochemical and biological process on the road from (i) to (ii). These parallels lend credence to reported cases of animal suicide.

One of the most famous cases of animal suicide is the tragic story of a dolphin named Kathy, who was one of the stars of the TV show Flipper and lived most of her life in a tank all by herself. According to her trainer, she became depressed and one day, for no apparent reason, simply sank into the tank and decided not to come up for air any more.

It would be easy, and tempting, to dismiss this case as an anthropomorphic projection on the basis that Kathy is not Hamlet. She certainly isn’t. But neither are the many, many humans who commit suicide that do not fit the Hamletian archetype.

To be sure, more research is needed in the area of animal suicide, but the research that exists suggests we should view suicide not as a dichotomy but as a continuum, as “a natural spectrum that encompasses a wide range of animal activities that are (i) self-directed and that (ii) result in serious injury to the animal or in the termination of its life-activity either suddenly or over an extended period of time.” Once we should recognize that suicidal behaviours exist on a continuum, the idea of nonhuman suicide starts looking less far-fetched than before.

I should clarify that when I say that suicide is a spectrum I do not mean that all species commit suicide in the same way. Suicide occurs in many species and will likely vary from one to the next. Some species may display simple suicidal behaviours (such as self-mutilation) when under significant physical discomfort. Others may display moderately complex suicidal behaviours (such as head-banging and other stereotypical behaviours) when emotionally devastated. Others may display hyper-complex suicidal behaviours (such as willingly choosing not to eat) if they have sophisticated cognitive abilities tied to planning and executive control. These suicides will be of different varieties, but all these varieties will be, as Durkheim would put it, “varieties of a single class.”

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Faisal Alkhaldi on 16/07/2018 9:27pm

It's a mystery to me why nature invented such strong negative emotions in animals even though it seems to me that they obviously impact the chance of survival. I wonder if it may just a product necessary for intelligence and we may even see it in the near future with AI. Will Deepmind cry in fear one day?

Mathilde Doré on 23/06/2018 7:57pm

Hi, I just want to get a little further : you talk several times about scientific research, could you please join links of it ? That seems really interesting

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